Local Focus, Global Reach: Inside Time Out’s Ambitious Ascent
CEO Julio Bruno on the publisher's dramatic expansion, the future of print, and leading a global company through an existential transformation.
Global recommendations purveyor Time Out Group—which, a decade ago, essentially consisted of two weekly magazines and a licensing business—today boasts owned and operated media brands in 76 cities around the globe, licensing arrangements in a further 32, and an events business that tripled in size last year.
The company’s global revenue hit £44.36 million ($58.28 million) in 2017, up 47 percent from when CEO Julio Bruno joined the company three years ago—and in June, Time Out was crowned International Media Brand of the Year by the UK’s Professional Publishers Association.
Thus, to call Time Out an ascendant global media brand would be a quantifiable understatement.
Interested in learning more about both the vision and the driving forces behind the 50-year-old publisher’s aggressive expansion in digital media, live experiences, e-commerce, and yes, print, Folio: sat down with Bruno for the following conversation.
Folio: Accepting the PPA award, you said that you’ve “successfully evolved Time Out into a global digital and transactional brand.” What did you mean by that?
Julio Bruno: You may know Time Out originally as a publisher. It’s our 50th anniversary this year as a magazine. But the company has evolved, not only as a digital platform, but also in that we’ve moved from inspiring people to allowing people to buy that experience—that event, that attraction, that ticket, that restaurant booking.
Not only that, we are now also a part of what to do in the cities we serve through our events and this new division of Time Out, which is the Time Out Market. We opened that in Lisbon in 2014 and it’s become one of the largest attractions in Portugal with 3.6 million visitors last year. It’s a permanent space, which is now opening in New York, Miami, Boston, Chicago, and Montreal in the next 12 months.
When you look at all that, we went from just being part of the inspiration process to actually being part of the booking process and the actual activity process. So it’s become a 360-degree type of platform.
Folio: You have this authority that you’ve built up over a very long period of time, shining a light on experiences in a given city for both locals and visitors alike. Is this move toward providing that experience yourselves the next logical extension of that?
Bruno: I don’t know that it’s logical. For most companies, it’s probably not very logical if you were writing a magazine, and now you are selling tickets, and now you’re a retailer and a hospitality company. I think it’s more bold than logical.
I like to say that we are platform-agnostic. We are wherever the consumer is—physical, digital, print, or anywhere else. By vocation we are global, and by tradition we are hyper-local. For me, and for the company, we are thinking about everything as content. I’m looking at food as content delivered in a physical format. You are creating and delivering experiences. It’s about what the consumer wants.
Folio: Is it that combination of global scale and local authority that makes Time Out especially well suited for a transition like this?
Bruno: It’s not enough anymore to just inform people what’s happening; you have to be part of it. For us, it’s an extension of the same theme—which is happiness. We are in the happiness business, because we deliver experiences that make you happy.
I know that sounds corny, but it’s not. It’s really about providing value to the consumer. It’s very difficult to execute in a profitable manner, and it takes a strategy, but it has to start with a vision of a company that is an ambassador for a city and is bringing happiness to people in these cities all around the world.
Folio: Is this where you envision Time Out’s biggest opportunities moving forward—in live events and experiences?
Bruno: By sheer size, you’re multiplying the revenue of the company. The cost, obviously, is very high as well. But in Portugal, for example, we’re talking about having 11 to 12,000 people every single day of the year. So yes, the opportunity is there.
Our digital advertising continues to grow, in spite of the duopoly, and we cannot forget that. Brands love to be in our safe environment—both the magazine and the website—where we have a mainly millennial and post-millennial audience, who are looking for things to spend their money on. And they’re spending their money on experiences, which is Time Out’s sweet spot.
Folio: When you’re looking at all of this as new forms of content, and expanding into new local markets at the same time, what are some of the ways you ensure that the Time Out brand maintains a uniform identity and a certain standard of quality?
Bruno: When I came in, every single city was an entity unto itself. London was London, New York was New York, Barcelona was Barcelona. So we put in a global editor-in-chief, a global head of media sales, things that allow us to learn from each other and set best practices. We’ve had events that launched in Australia and are now around the world. Or the Market, which began in Portugal and is now expanding to new cities.
If you do everything locally, you’re missing out. Every editor in every city would have a different review of the same international movie. That didn’t really make sense. At the same time, we have a tone of voice that has to be translated into every single culture. So it’s a global vision that we have to execute at a local level.
The Time Out brand has always had a certain connotation. It’s a little bit of a rebel, a friend, a helping hand. That has tremendous value in today’s world where everything is commoditized. Having a brand voice that is global is something that’s very unique and very difficult to have. We reflect the cities that we serve.
So it’s a matter of maintaining core values, helping people find entertainment and things to do, and making good recommendations. We’re sending anonymous reviewers to restaurants and hotels and museums all over the world. And we pay for it. You might not like one of our reviews, but at least you know it’s from a professional journalist. That authenticity and authority, which comes from our 50 years of experience, is a differentiator for us. We have to maintain that in everything that we do.
Folio: Has it been a difficult process, internally, to get people to continue to maintain that local focus while operating within a more global infrastructure?
Bruno: Any organizational change is difficult. If there isn’t a bit of pain when you’re transforming a company, you probably aren’t doing it well enough. It’s an evolution from a content point of view, but it also touches all the other sides. It goes from technology, to finance, to HR, to sales—moving from a local sale to a global sale. If you’re making an ad sale in Singapore, maybe they want to attract visitors from Chicago as well. So it changes the way you need to think.
We also needed many new skills in the company. We needed people who understood e-commerce, retail, real estate, and a number of other things that had nothing to do with Time Out in the past.
Folio: As a leader, what are some of the ways you maintain a positive atmosphere and ensure that staffers are buying into the mission of an evolving company?
Bruno: Transparency. We do a lot of town halls where we share with people what we are doing. I share a video every quarter where I update the company on where we are going and why. Some people love it, and some people might not agree. That’s fine, but at least people are aware of the reasons why we are doing all of the things that we are doing. In our quest for growth and profitability, I don’t want people who have no interest in how they’re adding value or contributing to what we’re doing.
It’s difficult, because we might think we are communicating well or even over-communicating, but I can guarantee you that there are people who aren’t listening. That happens in every company. It’s painful for some people because we are changing the status quo. We’re bringing in new skills, but in some places perhaps we are also letting go of skills that aren’t needed anymore. That can be highly personal for the people who are affected, no matter how much you communicate.
Folio: So you want people who aren’t just following directives, but are also interested in why they’re following them?
Bruno: If I can, I only hire people who want to be part of a transformation story. When all around us in the industry, publishers and media companies are closing down or firing people or disappearing, regrettably, I want people who can say, “I am transforming a brand into a profitable business,” and can have that on their resumes for the rest of their lives.
If we were just maintaining the status quo, we wouldn’t be here anymore. The advertising world has collapsed in the past few years. The competition of the duopoly is brutal. The free media has created a whole new complex ecosystem in which companies have to survive. You have to be committed and you have to want to be part of that change.
Folio: And Time Out is expanding in print, too. In the last few years, you’ve launched four new magazines in the U.S. alone. What are some of your reasons for continuing to invest in print?
Bruno: Once you look at content as platform-agnostic, we can look at the cost of producing it, what is the revenue we can generate, and decide what we want to do. We make a calculation and launch in places that make sense to us. So we look at content as content.
Print, for us, is a wonderful medium to showcase a brand, to talk to our consumers sitting on the metro or at the bus stop or wherever, and people like to have it in their hands. What better experience is there for a brand to be given—something hand-delivered to consumers that is completely safe and also very powerful?
Folio: Do you see a future for Time Out in print?
Bruno: Yes. The number of new launches you quoted, which is correct, is proof of that. We are now launching a book with the 50 best covers of Time Out. We love that format. Sometimes I give speeches at universities, and I’ll ask the millennials in the audience how many of them are using Kindles to read books, and it’s almost nobody. It’s stunning. They love books. Some of it is vintage, some of it is a trend, but some of it is also reality.
Print is like the sea. The sound of the sea. It’s always there, we know it, we have an intuition for it. With print, it’s the same. It’s always there. It was in the Library of Alexandria. No matter how much you go digital, there is something about touching a page. It’s a very nice format. And then from the point of view of art, showing a cover or an ad on a physical, two-dimensional page is very different from showing it online.
Folio: Do you expect other magazine publishers to lean further into events going forward?
Bruno: I think most are trying to put on or co-author events of some kind. They’re all trying to find different ways of making money and trying to save their brand. But when I go to very specific shops in the world, like in London or in New York, I see more new magazines coming and going, because people still love that format. You’re seeing magazines being produced by watch manufacturers because they want to showcase their products in glossy magazines. You have big brands in fashion who still love print. Facebook is printing a magazine and they’re advertising in Time Out every week to tell people that they aren’t fake news. Magazines give them credibility.
They used to say that you can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper, but today you can believe a lot more of what you read in the paper than what you read in a tweet.
Everybody is trying. It’s very difficult. We haven’t yet done it, but parts of the company are profitable and the others are getting there. We have a plan and vision and we’re executing it.